Mixed Signals at the Office? Find Out How to Address Them

Libby Kane

In an ideal world, we would all be a Jim or a Pam.

But reality is often sadly devoid of tear-streaked confessions of love, like those on “The Office.” Instead, our work relationships can be tinged with uncertainty.

“But do you think he likes me? Like, like likes me? Or was he just being friendly at that client lunch?”

As we age (way!) out of middle school, there’s still an awfully large gray area–that space between what people say, what we hear them say and what they actually mean. And it seems there’s gray area aplenty at the office: Nearly 40% of workers have dated a co-worker, and one in three went on to marry a person they dated at work.

While workplace romance isn’t uncommon, we all know there are consequences to an office crush (whether you have one or are the object of one), so learning to set boundaries and deflect or interpret mixed signals is an important career skill to have.

We spoke to success coach and communication expert Marilyn Suttle for her advice on nipping mixed signals in the bud.

Professional Is as Professional Does

First, don’t jump to conclusions about a colleague’s behavior:  ”Miscommunication can create unnecessary drama,” says Suttle, and all that drama can affect your performance. So, if a co-worker asks if you have plans Friday night, assume he’s being friendly, not looking for a date. If he touches your elbow, assume he’s compassionate, not lascivious. If you’re having trouble interpreting a mixed message, assume that you’re the one doing the misunderstanding. That way you won’t make any false assumptions. Of course, if it becomes clear someone’s crossing the line, go ahead and mention how your significant other–fictional or otherwise–just loves the Giants.

You can also deflect attention more subtly: “Most people pick up immediately on body language,” says Suttle. “They can tell when you’re uncomfortable and back off.” Common signs of disinterest include looking or facing away from someone, crossing your arms or legs and standing or sitting farther apart. Men tend to need less personal space than women, so if you’re trying to communicate disinterest to a male co-worker, you may have to exaggerate.

When Should I Speak Up?

But if that same co-worker won’t stop looming over your chair? “If they’re not honoring your non-verbal cues, say something,” Suttle advises. Speaking up sounds easy, but what if the message you need to convey is, “Stop asking if I’ve lost weight/read the newest Dan Savage, because I feel like you’re hitting on me (and I’m not interested)”?

“This is where ‘nice’ people mess things up because they don’t want to offend,” advises Suttle. “A good person who unintentionally made you uncomfortable can handle an abrupt comment. They’ll understand that you’re setting a boundary.” We realized that this is the perfect time to use those “I” phrases you were taught in middle-school conflict resolution:

  • “I’m not sure if you realized, but I need some more personal space.”
  • “I’m sure you don’t mean to, but it makes me uncomfortable when you …”
  • “I feel silly saying anything, but please stop [confusing behavior]. It kind of freaks me out.”

A good catch-all phrase? “I’m not interested in anything other than a professional relationship.”

Saying the words out loud can be awkward (and provide an opportunity for the other person to feign ignorance), but this is a case of trusting your instincts. If you’re uncomfortable enough to say something about it, that person is clearly doing something wrong. Once you’ve made your intentions clear, the behavior should cease and desist. If it doesn’t, you may want to consider a visit to HR.

What if the person is your boss? “It’s harder to deflect because they have control over your career,” says Suttle.  She recommends researching your company’s sexual harassment and dating policies, then having a straight conversation from a place of confidence.  ”It’s okay to set a clear boundary,” she says. “You can do it in a tactful way.”

Keep Your Own Signals Straight

We know that mixed signals aren’t always intentional. For example, if you’re a particularly touchy or affectionate person, it can sometimes be hard for others to tell if you’re pursuing more than friendship.

Keep from sending unintended signals with Suttle’s four questions to ask yourself:

  1. Am I clear about how I feel? If you’re not clear on whether you like or like like a co-worker, chances are you may be sending them mixed messages.
  2. Am I standing too close? If your colleague steps back from you, you’ve come too close. Notice and honor the distance the person you’re talking to puts between you.
  3. Does he or she look uncomfortable? When someone is uncomfortable, his face shows it. Notice if a colleague winces, rolls his eyes or frowns when you talk about certain topics, or touch or look at him in certain ways.
  4. What are people saying? The more you want to know something, the more you’ll find out. Listen carefully to the office gossip–oftentimes, third parties recognize budding romances (or awkward rifts) before those involved. Don’t be afraid to ask a trusted colleague to observe you and share her insights.

But What If I Do Like My Co-Worker?

If you have an interest in a co-worker who is interested in you, Suttle recommends echoing his or her actions–after all, mimicking body language is a well-known indicator of attraction. “Return smiles and build rapport,” she advises.

Before getting too carried away, Suttle recommends starting with the end in mind. It’s not as gloomy as it sounds: In this case, the end could be a long-term relationship, a temporary tryst or a breakup. “Consider how getting involved might affect your day-to-day life and career,” says Suttle. “And be sure to look up any relevant rules or policies your company might have.”

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  • Lawyer Lady

    Wow, this a great article! I do want to be Pam and Jim! Ha

  • Erica D.

    This is a very necessary article for today’s working culture. I like how the article included that you also need to be aware of your own behavior that might be sending the wrong signal.

  • Guest

    Just keeping in mind that if an office romance turns sour, you will most likely be the one who loses their job. Usually, the guy is in a superior position at work, so think first about how much you’ll enjoy unemployment and the fact that he will be telling all his “buddies” everything about your sexual part of your relationship. Keeping that in mind should be enough to keep things professional…

  • Johnthyg

    A late post so I’m sorry but I honestly think it is the man who will lose his job in a heartbeat if accused of harassment. This is just my corporate experience. 


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  • fien


    I was very friendly with a colleague but she called me unprofessional and asked to keep the relationship to just a professional relationship.i am hurt now

    How to get her back

  • Suzie

    I know that this is an old article… but we need a suggestion. My husband has a co worker… and it is a married young woman. She is extremely goal oriented… she feeds off of his attention and he has needed a good bit of work from her, she is new, and so the more he praises her the harder she works… she has now taken this to a personal level… always wanting to do dinner or lunch… bring him into her personal issues and wants advise at how to be a better person personally and professionally… he wants to say something to her but doesn’t know what or how…. thoughts?

    • Rijasoa Andriamanana

      Maybe the responses she receives from your husband are not just professional but with personal / emotional messages. Sometimes men do not want to hurt females and find it hard to say things straight. In a workplace, it is even worse because they do know the productivity of their female counterparts and do not take a chance to lose them. I guess the best advice to your husband is to focus all talks, behaviors, and actions to business. That means, no chit-chat on private life at all during business hours. Small talks like “how was your weekend?” can go on and on , and end up with emotional involvement to some extent. Your husband would feel guilty for a while but the situation would get better with time. It is a workplace after all, and professional demeanor is expected. Good luck!

      • Suzie

        thank you for your time and thoughts! I agree with you… this is our game plan… but my concern is she is so manipulative ( I have learned of some really obvious things she has done or said ) and he is clueless to when she is doing this… can’t see it until I point it out!!!! So we will see…

  • Nick Zeman

    I agree that by politely saying to the person you want to reject, but don’t want to be mean to “We have a good WORKING RELATIONSHIP and I’m happy with just that.” is the best way to make your feelings clear while being diplomatic in the process. In fact, I think it should be taught to every worker when being educated on sexual harassment in the workplace. Then if he persists then its good to say, “No thank you.” My biggest pet peeve is sometimes women may use men for attention (and vice versa) and when the man gets the guts to ask the woman out, she starts sending mixed signals and the man feels hurt. This is where the man should ask what the person’s true feelings are. And if the person who is rejected leaves the company its not necessary to give gifts. Just say goodbye and thank them for the good things they did. This is why for me dating at work is taboo.

  • rustbucketblues

    Ironic how sexist this article is. Assuming that the man is invariably the aggressor. As if women don’t hit on blokes, and hit on them hard too. I’ve been hit on by women work. I fancied them and to be honest often was flattered by the attention. However, I always ignored the attention, for two reasons: (1) Embarrassment. Work is work. I try never to have friends at work and I keep my private life private. The idea of starting something at work to me seems very much like washing dirty linen in public. (2) In most cases, the liaison would have been primarily sexual. Inevitably, such episodes have a shelf life. And then you’re stuck with the awkwardness of dealing with them afterwards. Conclusion: get a life folks. You don’t even have friends at work, never mind lovers. You sometimes may fancy someone at work. Ignore it and about rebooting your social life instead.